Principles of pasture management: harrowing, rolling, topping, weed-control, soil fertility & fertilising, seeding
Even at optimum stocking levels, you need to manage your grazing throughout the year to provide your livestock with clean, nutritious pasture and prevent keeping your livestock on poached, dirty ground.
Harrowing & Rolling
In Spring, paddocks will benefit from harrowing which breaks up any dung, allowing the air and sunlight to help kill dormant worm eggs, and drags out old, dead grass and weeds. Harrowing encourages young growth and stimulates new root development. Sheep’s feet are very good at keeping turf level, but if they’ve shared the paddock with cattle or horses, it’s likely to be fairly rutted, so rolling will level this out, help to re-establish the grass and prevent water collecting in hollows. When rolling, ground conditions need to be firm (but not too dry) to avoid compaction.
Topping & Weed Control
Regular topping of areas of long grass and weedy areas will keep the sward to the optimum length for sheep, ideally between 4 and 6cm, and stop the weeds setting seed. Topping also prevents many undesirable plants such as docks, nettles and thistles from going to seed, reducing the number of these plants in the future. If you want to be chemical-free, this is the best way of combating weeds – left uncontrolled they will quickly overtake the grass and diminish the grazing. Regular topping will also encourage new growth and therefore increase the volume of grass you have for grazing.
Soil Fertility & Fertilising
Haymaking removes considerable amounts of nutrients from the field, whereas fields used for grazing animals don’t suffer this depletion effect as the animals recycle the elements in their dung and urine. Sheep naturally return nutrients to the soil, while artificial fertilisers tend to encourage stronger grasses to grow at the expense of lower growing grasses and herbs.
Checking your soil fertility can tell you whether your soil structure and composition is able to provide the essential elements for grass growth: namely air, moisture and a complex cocktail of minerals and trace elements.
See our Soil and Forage Analysis article for a detailed description of soil fertility.
A soil analysis will tell you which nutrients to add to your pasture to improve its quality and provide you with optimum conditions for your livestock.
It is important to apply the right fertiliser for your land. Excessive nitrogen fertiliser will cause a ‘flush’ of grass growth, especially in Spring, which reduces the uptake of calcium and magnesium that are essential to pregnant ewes, as well as being a cause of laminitis in horses and ponies.
We tend to think of pasture as just grass, but there are numerous other plants that can make a real contribution to livestock health and nutrition, and even save money on feeding concentrates and supplements.
Increase both soil fertility and nutritional value of the grazing naturally through diversity, for example, by over-seeding with white clover (which fixes nitrogen in the soil) and other deep-rooted plants that will draw minerals from the ground and are very appetising to sheep – these include: Chicory (which – usefully – contain tannins that have been shown to repel internal parasites), Sainfoin, Birdsfoot Trefoil (both of which also claim to have anthelmintic properties).
By having the most nutritious grazing for your livestock, you can ensure that your livestock flourish.
There are companies available that will do all of the above to keep your land in optimum condition.
For further information, please see the DVD 'Managing Your Flock for Peak Health'